Oklahoma Football: Five big questions entering the 2021 season (Part 2: Defense)

September 2, 2021
TCU v Oklahoma
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

There’s depth across the board, and OU fans are excited.

Other than Nik Bonitto or Perrion Winfrey, which defensive Sooner is most likely to bring home first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2021?

Allen: Isaiah Thomas. I’ll take the low-hanging fruit here. Thomas broke out last season with 8.5 sacks in 11 sacks, the third-highest total in the conference. He had a total of 13 tackles for loss, putting him in the top five in the Big 12. I’d argue the biggest threat to his bid for all-conference honors would be the fact that OU might rotate upwards of 14 players on the defensive line this year.

Stephen: I’m going to go with Brian Asamoah here. He led the team in tackles last season and recorded the same amount of tackles-for-loss as Perrion Winfrey. He was flying around the field towards the latter half of last season and I think he’s shown a lot of improvement as far as playing in space. With another year under Brian Odom, I think he’ll certainly be in the conversation of one of the best linebackers in the Big 12.

Seth: I see Jalen Redmond emerging as an All-Big 12 first teamer by season’s end. After opting out of the 2020 season, I predict he’ll pick up where he last left off as one of the most athletically gifted D-linemen in the conference. As long as he remains available, I don’t see how he doesn’t work his way into All-Big 12 honors following the regular season. The depth up front is just stupid at OU right now, and Redmond is a big part of that.

Jack: I’ll go with Woodi Washington, who plays the ball better than any OU CB we’ve seen in years. Yes, that’s a depressingly low bar, but the guy embodies Alex Grinch’s vision for the position and is a stark departure from what we would see from this group during the Mike Stoops/Kerry Cooks era. Corners from the past regime were often physically outmatched by large receivers and were hesitant to turn around and look for the ball. Fortunately, this is no longer a concern.

Which off-the-radar name should OU fans keep in mind as the season begins?

Allen: Justin Harrington. It has to go down as an upset that Harrington hasn’t moved to safety or nickel with his size (6-3, 217 pounds), all signs still continue to point to him playing cornerback. That means Harrington will have plenty of competition for snaps versus other candidates like DJ Graham, Woodi Washington and Jaden Davis. Clearly, however, Alex Grinch likes Harrington’s potential as a cover man.

Stephen: Keyshawn Lawrence. There was probably some expectation that Lawrence would transfer in as a plug-and-play guy, but he’s only had one season of college football under his belt and a covid season at that. He didn’t necessarily shine during the spring as it took time to learn Grinch’s system and caused some of that hype to fade. Oklahoma hasn’t had a physical freak like Lawrence in the defensive backfield in some time. A 6’1, 210-pound DB that is running somewhere in the 4.4’s can be an absolute monster in Grinch’s system. If what’s coming out of fall camp is indeed true, Lawrence will be a factor for Oklahoma this season.

Seth: Look out for sophomore OLB Brynden Walker. He saw a decent amount of time in his first collegiate season last fall, and I expect his production to increase in year two. Currently, he’s being used in that Bonitto, EDGE/RUSH role, and at 6’2, 243, he has the size (and physicality) to make a notable impact at this level.

Jack: In-state product Jordan Kelley is my pick here, as Perrion Winfrey’s backup at nose tackle seems poised to play a pivotal role on the defensive front. With injuries in the rearview mirror, his physically-imposing nature should ensure that OU doesn’t see much of a drop-off in disruption when Winfrey needs a breather.

In your opinion, is this the year in which OU’s defense is finally good enough to put OU in the legitimate running for a national championship?

Allen: That’s kind of a loaded question because the Sooners had a legitimate shot at a national title in 2017. That defense was far worse than what I’m expecting we’ll see on the field this fall.

In other words, yes. My biggest concern for the postseason is drawing a team with a more physical running game to take advantage of a DL built for disruption.

Stephen: Alex Grinch has transformed this Oklahoma defense in a short period of time. A lot of talk is about the personnel and body types, but I think there isn’t enough credit given to how much the culture has changed. These players and coaches come out of the tunnel with an edge and the mentality that they can go out and beat anybody. A stark difference than going out and “surviving” enough for the offense. So I’ll go with yes.

Seth: In short, yes. I do believe this OU defense is good enough to contend for a national title. The powers that be have done an impressive job at hiring tenacious recruiters who can also develop said recruits into the caliber of player that can win a championship. Right now, it appears the defensive front is further along than the secondary, but neither unit is where they were two or three years ago. Still, the true test will only come in the playoffs, where the Sooners have yet to have a respectable defensive showing.

Jack: Absolutely, and this is the first time I’ve felt this way in over a decade. The 2013 and 2015 defenses put forth respectable efforts, but those groups didn’t have the depth, the athletes or the coaching to really compete with the country’s more physical rosters. The fact that Grinch has been able to fix these issues in such a short amount of time is both a testament to his expertise and an indictment of past leadership. At any rate, it’s a breath of fresh air for OU fans, who now become legitimately excited to see their defense take the field.

Who is your favorite position coach on the defensive side of the ball? (Note: Can include Alex Grinch)

Allen: Calvin Thibodeaux. I like all of them, honestly, but I love Thibodeaux’s story. His coaching resume is all about grinding. Before OU: grad assistant to junior college to Dartmouth to Tulsa to Kansas.

After a couple disappointing seasons for OU’s DL early in Thibodeaux’s tenure, Lincoln Riley’s faith in him looks pretty smart now.

Stephen: I’ll go with Jamar Cain. Cain has been an outstanding compliment to Calvin Thibodeaux on the field. As a recruiter, he may be the most underrated on Oklahoma’s staff. His early resume consists of being the primary recruiter for Clayton Smith, Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge, and Ethan Downs. He also played the part of secondary recruiter for 4-star DL, Kelvin Gilliam in 2021. Looking at 2022, Cain has a verbal commitment from 4-star DL, Derrick Moore and has put Oklahoma in the conversation for one of the top pass rushers in the country in Marvin Jones Jr.

Seth: A couple years ago, Kenneth Murray’s praise of Brian Odom completely sold me on the inside linebackers coach, and while I can find a dozen great things to say about any of OU’s coaches, Odom strikes me as a guy who fully stands for everything this program is about. He’s from the state of Oklahoma, he won a national championship with the Sooners, and he understands the standard that the past greats established before him.

Jack: I could really go with any of them, but mine might be Roy Manning. A lot of people doubted him when the hire was made, but his group has improved as much as any over the past two years. He’s recruiting at a high level, and the enthusiasm he brings to the table is palpable. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to play for the guy.

Which past defensive Sooner from the past decade or so would you have loved to see in Alex Grinch’s system?

Allen: Easy – Eric Striker. Grinch could have used a chaos agent like Striker in so many ways. It just seems like a perfect fit.

Stephen: Obo Okoronkwo would have been a lot of fun to watch. Also can’t help but think what Addison Gumbs could have become given the current staff’s ability to develop.

Seth: Tony Jefferson. Personally, he’ll always be one of my favorite Sooner DBs, and I would have loved the chance to see how his leadership could have affected this team. Plus, the dude just balled out.

Jack: I’ll follow Allen’s lead and go with Striker. He was an insanely disruptive force from 2013-15, but could you imagine how dangerous he would’ve been with a front seven like this to take some of the pressure off of him? Offensive schemes were focused so heavily on him, and if guys like Perrion Winfrey or Jalen Redmond were around to command some of the attention, he could’ve done even more damage.

BONUS: What’s your go-to pregame beverage?

Allen: Bud Heavy, although I’m not above a hard seltzer before the temps drop in November.

Stephen: If it’s an 11 am kickoff, I’ll go with a spicy bloody mary. Other kickoff times: Pacifico

Seth: As the resident non-drinker, I’ll have a sprite.

Jack: For these hot early games, I’ll go with ranch water, which is basically just blanco tequila with seltzer water, lime juice and sea salt. Cold games call for Hot Damn 100.

DOUBLE BONUS: Who is your pick to win the Super Bowl this year?

Allen: Chiefs. No doubt.

Stephen: Chiefs. Fixed a lot of their issues along the offensive line this offseason.

Seth: Browns, and they’ll cover the spread, too.

Jack: My Kansas City Chiefs, of course! I suffered for a long time, and I’m now basking in the glow of consistent success.